Last Offseason, Kevin O’Connell Unpacked the Benefits of Drafting a Rookie QB

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin O’Connell understands the benefits.

“If you’ve got a quarterback, you’re excited. If you don’t, you’re excited to go find him,” O’Connell explained in March of 2023. He goes on: “Now, it’s clear the benefits of drafting one and having those four years of that player on kind of that scale that allows you to build a roster around those players.” O’Connell describes the cost savings as “an advantage.”

Jun 7, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell looks on during mandatory mini camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

How do we square these thoughts with where things are heading with Kirk Cousins? Do the coach’s previous comments add further credence to the notion that the Vikings will sink a 1st-round selection into a passer?

On Tuesday, February 27th, the NFL Scouting Combine will begin. The NFL will descend upon Indianapolis to get an up-close look at this year’s batch of quarterbacks. Plus, player agents are going to be in town and will be doing some of the legwork to understand their options in free agency.

The Vikings, of course, have a role to play in both facets of the QB combine experience. With Kirk Cousins heading toward both free agency and his 36th birthday, Minnesota must think long and hard about using their opening-round selection on a quarterback regardless of whether #8 sticks around.

Kevin O’Connell and The Path Ahead at QB

Safe to say that leveraging the cost savings from a rookie QB’s contract has been advantageous for several teams.

In 2023, it was the San Francisco 49ers with Brock Purdy seeing the benefit. In 2022, the Philadelphia Eagles and Jalen Hurts were the example. In 2021, the Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Burrow got tossed into the Super Bowl while the 2020 and 2019 seasons saw Kansas City get there behind Patrick Mahomes’ rookie contract. So, to be sure, there have been a pile of recent examples of teams leveraging an artificially-cheap young quarterback to get into the final game.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 8, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass as Minnesota Vikings linebacker Marcus Davenport (0) and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips (97) rush during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now, even as we acknowledge this success there needs to be another acknowledgement: the past three examples have all fallen short. Burrow’s Bengals, Hurts’ Eagles, and Purdy’s 49ers couldn’t snag the championship despite having the contract benefit. Even Mahomes didn’t get the job done in 2020, instead falling to Tom Brady’s Bucs.

The last time the strategy worked was following the 2019 season when Mr. Mahomes snagged his first Lombardi.

Does that mean the approach is completely without merit? By no means, and yet it is a reminder that simply onboarding a talented young quarterback isn’t the silver bullet. And even if the Vikings decide to move on from Mr. Cousins, the financial windfall won’t arrive in 2024. Seeing Cousins play elsewhere would mean needing to digest $28.5 million in dead money, so the financial benefit would need to wait a year.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (0) tries to get past Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Brian O’Neill (75) to sack quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

On Vikings Territory, Dustin Baker has commonly been found pointing out that Minnesota’s new leadership regime is going to take the plunge on a young quarterback sooner rather than later. The thinking makes sense. Eventually, the GM and HC will rally around a young fella in an attempt to move into 10+ years of competitive Vikings football.

Does that reality, though, mean that Minnesota makes their move in 2024? And if they do, how high do they go? Hopping into 1st overall is a perilous path, but getting into the top 10 isn’t unreasonable for a team sitting at No. 11.

The majority seem to think that the most realistic options are Jayden Daniels or J.J. McCarthy, a pair of QBs with tremendous athleticism. Daniels put together remarkable production last year and snagged a Heisman for his efforts. McCarthy didn’t do too bad on his end, leading his Wolverines to the National Championship as a 20-year-old (he turned 21 in January).

Jan 1, 2024; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) throws a pass against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half in the 2024 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

And yet running through all of this speculation is the genuine desire to compete in the immediate. A rookie may be able to keep his team competitive but there’s no guarantee. For some, the NFL’s bright lights are too much in a debut season.

The Vikings’ leadership will look unwise if they hand things over to a rookie who is in over his head in 2024. After all, the offense boasts Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and T.J. Hockenson, so the only way to consistently shutdown the passing attack is for Minnesota to have a QB who can’t get the ball down the field. Assembling that kind of skill can’t be taken for granted; there must be urgency in Eagan to leverage all of that skill into seasons where the Super Bowl is realistic.

Kevin O’Connell knows that bringing in a rookie passer offers tremendous benefits for the salary cap and yet he similarly knows that Mr. Cousins is among the best QBs in the NFL. Those twin realities mean that re-signing Cousins while also drafting a QB high remains the likeliest outcome for the Vikings.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.